Violet Webster is a bride on the run. The last thing she wants is to get married, especially to a stranger twice her age.More info →
San Francisco, May 3, 1851
Garrett Sutherlin checked his time piece for the third time in less than an hour. Irritated, he snapped the brass lid shut, then tucked the treasured heirloom back into the front pocket of his vest.
His patience was past the point of wearing thin. Squinting, he targeted a steely gaze onto the outskirts of town. Nothing. No cloud of dust along the horizon signaling company. Nor could he hear the faint thunder of horse’s hooves in the distance. In fact, there was no sign at all of the stage coach, now over two days late.
The muggy heat was beginning to take a toll, robbing him of the little tolerance he had left. He removed his worn hat and shaded his eyes with a forearm to glance at the setting sun before returning his stare back to the town.
Narrowing his gaze, Garrett scanned the perilous streets of San Francisco. Thick with mud and debris it would be a struggle for the coach to prevail anyway. Though he doubted the muck would stop the mail courier from trying, especially with a cargo full of paying customers.
Shouts of men conducting their business from the thoroughfares caught his attention and he noted how busy even the side streets and alleyways were. Though shops were starting to close, the city never truly slept. The saloons and casinos kept the night life awake. As if on cue, the upbeat twang of a fiddle blasted from a lively dance hall and broadcasted an invitation to all within earshot.
Tempted, Garrett glanced toward the entrance of the saloon then back up at the sky. The sun, making its descent with a dramatic curtain call, bathed the town in a comforting glow of orange and reds. Seeming somewhat civil at the moment, he knew from experience things would change as soon as night took over. Especially if he were to judge by the previous evening.
Traces could still be seen of the wild rampage which had transpired. In case there might be a repeat performance, he’d prefer to be off the streets before dark. Not standing here waiting on a coach.
The city simply wasn’t safe. To confirm his point, a drunkard flew out of the swinging doors of the noisy saloon and into the rutted center of the muddy road. A man with both guns drawn followed.
Garrett braced himself for what was to come. Two shots were fired. Then silence. After a brief moment, the fiddle, now accompanied by a banjo, started up again, interrupting the quiet tone of death.
Garrett stared at the streets, littered with curious bystanders. A scrawny miner approached the body and kicked at the dead man’s foot with a cautious toe. Satisfied with the lack of response, he then rifled through the deceased pockets and withdrew a handful of gold nuggets. Another man freed the corpse of his boots and hat as several more circled around to see what could be scavenged.
Why would anyone choose to live in this ruthless state?
The answer was just pocketed. Gold. The prospect of striking it rich, lured newcomers by the thousands. The hope of fortune was a strong temptation. Funny how a mere rock held so much power. It could even sway a lady into placing an ad in the newspaper and committing herself to a complete stranger.
Not so humorous, when it happened to him, costing Garrett an arm and a leg in coach fare and a humbling chunk of pride for a bride who never showed. Yet, here he was waiting for another mail-order bride to arrive.
Bring home a wife this time.
He scoffed out loud, repeating his father’s hateful words before checking his time piece again. Forced to escort his father’s intended back to the Sutherlin Ranch in order to ensure a piece of land into his name was not only a slap in the face, it brought up a nasty memory.
Though he’d been played for a fool, he’d learned a valuable lesson. Never trust a woman. Violet Webster happened to be a prime example—the perfect description of a gold-digger. Why else would she set her sights on the richest man on the border of San Francisco?
There’d only been one woman in his life he’d been able to rely on. And she was long gone. Subconsciously, he reached into his vest and ran the tip of his finger over the flumed edges of the time piece. Brushing aside the painful memory, he focused on the task ahead.
Though late, Garrett was certain the coach would eventually make its entrance and, he would come face to face with the opportunist. She would soon find she’d met her match. Earl Sutherlin was not one to toy with. He would not be played for a fool.
Garrett scowled, picturing the man as he left him two weeks prior. Whip in hand, the ranch owner had shouted orders daring anyone to disagree as the menacingly strip of leather licked at the air with deadly aim. No one in his right mind would argue with such an audacious figure. Those who did paid the price.
He trailed a fingertip over the mark lining his cheek, recalling the day he’d been on the receiving end of his father’s wrath. Questioning the man in front of others had cost him. A lesson he’d paid dearly with flesh.
The scar, a painful reminder of how close he’d come to losing his left eye, ran from the corner of his eye to the edge of his mouth. He skimmed over the puckered skin time had helped fade, but not restored. He’d been young and stupid, refusing to believe his father would turn on him. A mistake Garrett would never be foolish enough to repeat.
He cleared his mind, not willing to dwell on the ugly memory. His thoughts returned to the gold dust bride he was there to collect as two men emerged from the saloon to remove the lifeless and now nearly naked body off the street.
A sunken imprint remained in its place, a concave reminder of a man who’d lost his life. More than likely over a rock he’d pulled free from the ground. The streets emptied and the men disappeared back into the bar as if nothing had happened.
None of his business, he mumbled under his breath. However he couldn’t shake the direction his tormented thoughts were headed. This wasn’t the place for a woman. Not even an ambitious fortune hunter like Miss Webster. But, as archaic as the city was, at least the girl stood a slim chance here. She fared better on these streets than she would on the Sutherlin ranch.
Garrett sucked in a deep breath, hoping the mail-order bride wouldn’t show after all.